By Fernando Gonzalez
Salzau, Germany. This year’s edition of Germany’s Jazz Baltica Festival was billed as “The Battle of the Big Bands,” and included the Jazz Big Band Graz, the Bohuslan Big Band with Steve Swallow, the NDR Big Band directed by Maria Schneider, and The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Still, as good as some of their performances were, and some were indeed terrific, the highlights of the event might have been the shows by a couple of small groups: The Hank Jones trio with James Moody and Miguel Zenón Quartet. And their performances stood as perfect bookends, celebrating both the history and, arguably, the future of jazz.
Held in and around the Salzau castle, a bucolic setting near Kiel in Northern Germany, July 1-5, the Jazz Baltica festival is part of the classical music-oriented Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival. It was started in 1991 as part of a program of cultural cooperation between Baltic states and has since grown into one of the important stops in the jazz summer circuit in Europe.
Because of the programming philosophy, over the years, the programs have been often set up as meeting places for artists from all over the world to work on one-of-a-kind projects with regional bands and players. (Some of the musicians who have appeared at Jazz Baltica include Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, David Murray, Charles Lloyd but also Jan Garbarek, Lars Danielsson, Dino Saluzzi, E.S.T., Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Tomasz Stanko and Marcin Wasilewski. It’s a long, rich list)
The concerts take place on several stages – including a club-like setting in the castle and an outdoor stage. The main halls are in fact two reconditioned barns, the large one has a capacity for about 600 and the smaller one sits about 200.
Saxophonist and composer Zenón — clearly not someone inclined to take the easy path — took the opportunity to present new material from his upcoming album, Esta Plena (Marsalis Music) in his performance in the small hall. The title reflects the fact that the music represents his take on the traditional plena style of his native Puerto Rico. That Latin jazz has been evolving by leaps and bounds in recent years, well beyond the tired jazz-with-congas idea, should not come as news. For some time now, a young generation of Latin musicians has been integrating indigenous rhythms and styles from their own cultures — such as tango, and flamenco, but also Mexican huapango, Panamanian mejoranas and Uruguayan candombe — and reworking them with the syntax and vocabulary of jazz. And yet, what Zenón has been doing – blending Puerto Rican styles such as jibaro (country music) with his own post-Ornette sound – is in a class by itself. Moreover, he has been able to keep his group — Luis Perdomo, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass and Henry Cole, drums – together and the quartet seemed to breathe as one, changing dynamics and turning on a dime, anticipating and responding to the most minute musical gestures on the fly. And yet, beyond that, there was a raw, earthy feeling to the music even as the ideas seem to sail by unpredictably, in seemingly all directions. The overall effect illuminated both traditions, jazz and plena, anew.
Later that day, also in the small hall, Hank Jones, 91, and James Moody, 84, neither asked for, nor made, any concession to age. Backed by George Mraz, bass and Willie Jones III, drums, Jones played the trio part of the set at an intense, crisp pace. Elegant and understated, he was all business; the pieces were short, the solos tight, clear and to the point. When Moody joined — he had recorded the marvelous Our Delight (IPO) with Jones in 2006 — he added not only his rich tenor sound and a fluid stream of ideas but also a touch of humor and vaudeville (his by-now classic parody “Benny’s From Heaven” brought down the hall). It was a master class of jazz history, swing and showbiz by two masters, all rolled into one.
And, as though that wasn’t enough, Jones appeared later that evening as a special guest with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, and Moody was part of the closing set with saxophonist Bunky Green (a Jazz Baltica mainstay) and his quartet, augmented by Donny McCaslin on tenor sax, and Zenón on alto — a four saxophone delight.)
If this year is any indication, Jazz Baltica is certainly well worth a visit.
For more info about the Festival click here Jazz Baltica.